I have been waiting a very long time for this film – somehow, Luca Guadagnino managed to create something absolutely mesmerizing and beautifully strange. The film is A Bigger Splash, one of the most gloriously enticing and absolutely unique films I’ve seen in a while, and with a perfect cast and some of the most beautiful filmmaking I’ve seen in a very long time, it is a truly extraordinary film.
A Bigger Splash is set on the Italian island of Pantelleria, and concerns Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and Paul Van Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) who are vacationing on the remote island. Marianne is a world-famous rock star, and Paul is a critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker, and Pantelleria is their refuge from the outside world, as they are hiding from the brutality of their celebrity (or at least Marianne’s celebrity) on the island. However, this is disturbed when Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson) arrive on Pantelleria as well. Harry is an old friend and former flame of Marianne, as they used to be a couple back when they were much younger. Harry has recently come into contact with Penelope, who he did not know the existence of until about a year before. What is supposed to be a pleasant visit from friends turns into something much more sinister, as it becomes clear that Harry is not quite over Marianne, and Paul himself finds himself being torn between his faithful Marianne or the absolutely enticing and seductive Penelope. The tension runs high around the island, as they individuals questions their values and their ideals in favour of succumbing to their urges of infidelity, or facing what might be difficult, but is ultimately right.
Is there anything more to say about Tilda Swinton? It has become a trend for me to praise her to high heavens every time I review one of her films – and that isn’t a mistake. She is my ultimate favorite actress of all time, and I adore her in absolutely everything she does. She has an extraordinary gracefulness about her, and in every role, she is effortlessly flawless. If there was any proof that Tilda is one of the most remarkably talented actresses working today, it can be found in the fact that in A Bigger Splash, she doesn’t speak much – her character is recovering from throat surgery, and thus tries to avoid speaking. Tilda only speaks in a loud whisper, and in the ocassional flashback that gives context, but otherwise, it is an almost completely silent role. Yet she still manages to give an impressive performance, and while I will admit that it doesn’t hit even close to her best performances, it is still a delightful performance. Tilda Swinton playing a rock star is a strange but incredibly fitting idea (I am still waiting for the avant-garde David Bowie biopic, where she will take on the great man himself). Tilda is not only versatile across genre, she is also versatile across gender – she has been able to play both male and female characters throughout her career, and she has always had a strangely androgynous personality in her performances. What makes her performance as Marianne in A Bigger Splash so unique is precisely that she plays a truly feminine character, which we don’t see from Tilda all too often. It is a role I would never have really considered Swinton for, but she is absolutely perfect for it, and while I can imagine many actresses in the role, I can’t imagine anyone else giving the extraordinary performance that Tilda did.
However, for the first time ever, Tilda Swinton doesn’t give the best performance in a film (I was shocked as well). That is reserved for an actor who I consider to be almost on the same level as Tilda, in talent and brilliance – Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes’ performance in The Grand Budapest Hotel was an absolute marvel, and showed a new side to the actor who I always liked, but never really loved. The Grand Budapest Hotel showed Fiennes with a sense of humor, and thus he gave one of the most memorable performances in recent memory. A Bigger Splash shows Fiennes once again bringing out the sense of humor, and as Harry, he is absolutely sublime. Fiennes’ performance in unrestrained, bizarre and utterly outrageous – he struts around in the nude, dances like he is on fire and runs around like a toddler in a toy-store. He is the heart and soul of the film, and he gives absolutely everything to this performance. Fiennes is a truly versatile actor, and a film like A Bigger Splash shows him in his best light, and is a great juxtaposition to his more well-known work in the plays of William Shakespeare. Fiennes is wonderful, and it is a great reunion of sorts with Tilda after their brief but memorable chemistry in The Grand Budapest Hotel. I hope Fiennes continues to do work like A Bigger Splash, because he is just marvelous, and an actor we should give much more praise to.
The core four of the cast of A Bigger Splash is rounded out by two performances that aren’t as impressive as those of Swinton or Fiennes, but are still very good. Dakota Johnson is an interesting actress, and ignoring her starring role in Fifty Shades of Grey, she is actually a very good actress, and her film choices have been fascinating. A Bigger Splash will prove that she is far more talented than the trashy Fifty Shades of Grey will lead you to believe, and while she isn’t given as much to do as Swinton or Fiennes, she is still very good and brings out the best in a performance that is otherwise one-note and bland, simply existing for the purpose of being a driving point of the plot. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Paul, a conflicted and tortured man who has to decide between who he wants to pursue. To be perfectly honest, Schoenaerts has never really impressed me as an actor, but he managed to make the character of Paul pretty interesting, and his inner turmoil, as written so brilliantly by the script (and the source material that it is based on), and he does well to play the character and examine his inner conflicts. The cast of A Bigger Splash has fantastic chemistry, and while A Bigger Splash is worth it merely for the performances of Swinton and Fiennes, it helps that Schoenaerts and Johnson are also very good, and go beyond the stereotypical roles of young anti-hero and seductive vixen, and rather make them into something far more interesting.
Luca Guadagnino has made some beautiful films – most notably, the Italian-language drama I Am Love, which also starred Tilda Swinton. I Am Love was not nearly as good as this, as it had a strange emptiness and detachment from reality. A Bigger Splash is far better – it is richer in every sense of the word. Guadagnino trades the cold landscape of Milan in the Winter for the sunny Pantelleria in the summertime, the cold and stark cinematography for rich and bright photography, and the score composed of classical music for the bouncing and entertaining idiosyncratic soundtrack, composed of classic rock and pop (one of which brings the most awe-inspiring sequence in the film, where Fiennes performs a surreal and spiritual dance to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”). Guadagnino makes a film better than I Am Love in every way, and I enjoyed I Am Love – but I adored A Bigger Splash. This film has a great story, which is only enhanced by the fact that the film is even more gorgeous to look at.
A Bigger Splash is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, not because it is surreal (which it is in places), but because of how unique it is. I haven’t quite seen something like this, and it changes tone, from a wonderful romantic comedy, to an exotic thriller, to a dark comedy, and sometimes even to a Travel Channel commercial. A Bigger Splash is truly a delightful film. Luca Guadagnino proves himself to be a talented director here more than ever, and while this film may not be for everyone, it is certainly an art film that completely lacks pretentiousness or arrogance, and rather has a peculiar soul and a sardonic sense of humor that is sadly too absent in modern cinema. The cast is absolutely stellar, and while the story has been told before, it has never been better, and overall, it is just a delight. It is hard to see this not being one of my favorite films of the year, and the fact that we are only in June scares me, because I can’t remember a year in recent memory that has harbored so many great films in the first half of the year. A Bigger Splash is definitely one of the best films of 2016, and proof that foreign art cinema can be absolutely amazing without much effort. I can’t wait for this cast and Guadagnino to reunite for the remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, because as A Bigger Splash proved, this cast is just wonderful, and I can’t wait to see what they do with one of the greatest horror films of all time.